NEW ORLEANS - 2011 marks the five-year anniversary of the Mardi Gras that almost wasn't. In 2005, after Katrina, the city grappled with whether to let the show go on. Naysayers said it couldn't, but many said it must.
“Katrina knocked us down but didn't knock us out,” said Ike Wheeler, King Zulu 2005 to 2006.
Wheeler’s simple words punctuated a monumental toast. King Zulu raised a glass to Mayor Ray Nagin on Mardi Gras Day, 2006. “We called it the most important Mardi Gras ever,” said Carnival expert Errol Laborde.
In 2006, he even put that phrase on the cover of the magazine he publishes, New Orleans Magazine.
“The Zulu organization was one of the first to come out and say, we're gonna parade. We must parade,” Laborde said.
But Carnival almost didn't happen. In December of 2005, an evacuated New Orleanian in Atlanta asked Nagin, "How can we be having a Mardi Gras and we aren't even there?" Nagin agreed, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
“It would've sent the word that New Orleans is so down and out it can't even have a parade. It would've told the world New Orleans was a dead city,” Laborde said.
Fears of inadequate emergency services from police to hospital beds dominated the debate.
“Right now, we only have 1,800 beds in the entire region to care for patients that we once had 5,000 beds for,” said LSU Emergency Services Chief Dr. James Aiken in early 2006.
Just like the recovery itself, New Orleanians and the Carnival krewes banded together to make sure Katrina couldn't rain on the city's parades.
“This Mardi Gras represented a turning point of sorts. It basically sent the message to the world that New Orleans is on its way back. It was also a psychological release for a lot of our residents,” Nagin said in 2006, shortly after Carnival concluded.
Ironically, Laborde said 2006 was the first time in history that rain forced the super krewe of Endymion to roll after Bacchus on the Uptown route, just like it did this year.
“Last year, in 2010, we saw the largest Mardi Gras that we've had in 25 years and this year because of a number of factors, there are predictions we could hit that number again or maybe even break it a little,” said Jennifer Day, Marketing Director for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Just five short years after a Katrina brought the city to its knees, New Orleans could very well be in the middle of one of the biggest celebrations in the city's history.